Xu Qinxian (Chinese: 徐勤先; pinyin: Xú Qínxiān) (born 1935) was the commander of the 38th Group Army of the Chinese People's Liberation Army who refused to use force against demonstrators in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Xu was court-martialed, jailed for five years and expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.
General Xu Qinxian was born in Dawu County, Hubei Province to a poor peasant's family. His ancestral line originates from Ye County (now Laizhou), Shandong Province. After the outbreak of the Korean War, he volunteered for the army and was initially rejected because he was underage. He was allowed to enlist after he bit his finger and wrote an appeal in blood. Xu saw combat in the war and became a tank operator in the 38th Army. By 1980, he was a division commander of the 1st armoured division, and participated in the large-scale military exercises of northern China in 1984. In 1987, Xu Qinxian became the commander of the 38th Group Army, based in Baoding, Hebei Province.
Defiance in Spring 1989
In March 1989, Xu Qinxian was wounded in a grenade accident and sent to the Beijing Military Region Hospital in the capital. While hospitalized he watched the student movement unfold and was moved to tears by media coverage of students on hunger strike.
In mid-May, he was recalled to Baoding to plan for the mobilization of the 38th Army. On or about May 20, 1989, the 38th Army was verbally ordered by the Beijing Military Region (BMR) to enforce martial law order against demonstrators in Beijing. Xu was a protege of Defense Minister Qin Jiwei, who had reservations about enforcing the crackdown. Xu said he could not comply with a verbal order to mobilize and demanded to see a written order. When told by the BMR that it "was wartime" and an order in writing will be provided later, Xu responded that there was no war and reiterated his refusal to carry out the order.
President Yang Shangkun sent Zhou Yibing, the commander of the BMR, to Baoding to persuade Xu. Xu asked Zhou whether the three principals of the Central Military Commission had approved the martial law order. Zhou replied that while Deng Xiaoping, the chairman, and Yang Shangkun, the vice-chairman, had approved, Zhao Ziyang, the first secretary, had not. Without Zhao's approval, Xu refused to act on the order and asked for sick leave. His request was not granted but he still refused to report to duty. Privately, he told friends that he would rather be executed than to be a criminal to history.
Yang Shangkun declared that Xu Qianxian's insubordination could not be tolerated. He ordered Xu be arrested, imprisoned and expelled from the Communist Party. The 38th Army under a new commander proceeded to play a major role in suppressing demonstrators. Many of Xu Qinxian's former colleagues were promoted for their roles.
Xu was court-martialled and served five years in prison. At trial, he remained defiant, declaring that "the People's Army has never in its history been used to suppress the people, I absolutely refuse to besmirch this historical record!"
After his release from prison, he was not permitted to live in Beijing and resides in a sanitarium for retired military officers in Shijiazhuang. When interviewed by the Hong Kong media 22 years after his decision, Xu expressed no regrets.
He became a friend of Li Rui, former secretary of Mao Zedong and a leading detractor within the Communist Party. Xu's defiance has also been praised by Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou, an outspoken critic within the PLA of the need for political reform in China.
- John Garnaut, "How top generals refused to march on Tiananmen Square", Sydney Morning Herald 2010-06-04
- (Chinese) "六四抗命将军22年首现身—宁杀头，不作历史罪人" Deutche Welle 2011-02-16
- (Chinese) 江迅, 38军军长徐勤先抗命内情，隐居河北 2009-05-23
- Zhang Liang, Andrew James Nathan, Perry Link & Orville Schell (2002). The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People - In Their Own Words. PublicAffairs. p. 213. ISBN 9781586481223.
- Jacobs, Andrew; Buckley, Chris (2 June 2014). "25 Years Later, Details Emerge of Army’s Chaos Before Tiananmen Square". The New York Times.